An interception that took a lifetime to arrive for Steve McLendon
If it seemed like it took forever for a football to find Steve McLendon, it's only because he had so much to do before it finally arrived. Life is that way when you're trying to make it in the NFL without an invitation or any headlines to announce your arrival. McLendon anointed himself a ninth-round draft pick in 2009, which is the kind of joke you make when 32 teams call it quits after drafting players for seven rounds.

He was an undersized nose tackle out of Troy University who wasn't even asked to attend the NFL's draft combine, so McLendon was thrilled when the Steelers gave him a locker in training camp that summer. A few weeks later, he was waived and offered a spot on the practice team. He was waived again later that season. And then three more times the next season.

But the funny thing is, a dozen years later, McLendon is still showing up for work in the NFL. He played his 160th game Monday night in the Bucs' 30-10 victory against the Giants, which is more games than 247 of those 256 draft picks in 2009 ever got to play in the NFL.

And, on a third-quarter play he recognized from studying video of the Giants, McLendon disengaged with the guard blocking him and looked up to find quarterback Daniel Jones' pass floating his way. It turned out to be the first interception of his career and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he became the second-oldest player in NFL history – behind Trace Armstrong - to wait so long for that first pick.

At 35, during a prime time game on a Monday night, the football finally found McLendon, the oldest defensive player in the NFL in 2021. "The oldest player and he's finally getting his first one," coach Bruce Arians said. "Man, that ball is getting framed. He may even put gold on it. But, no, that was a hell of a play by Stevie."

He's a part-time player in Tampa Bay, but that suits his persona just fine. McLendon is a survivor. A role player. The kind of guy who is at his best when he's helping those around him. McLendon eventually worked his way into the starting lineup in Pittsburgh, then signed a free-agent deal with the Jets in his eighth NFL season. He developed a reputation as a run stopper, but mostly as a guy that coaches and teammates could depend on.

He was voted New York's most inspirational player three years in a row before being dealt to Tampa Bay at mid-season in 2020 following Vita Vea's injury. Arians had known McLendon from his days at Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator and Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was the heat coach in New York during McLendon's time there.

He knew the Tampa Bay defense but, more importantly, he knew what he was being asked to do. The first thing Arians said when asked about the trade last year was that the Bucs just added a quality person.

So McLendon plays when Vea is hurt, or when Ndamukong Suh needs a breather, or any other time the coaches call his name. He's appeared in 16 games for Tampa Bay over the past two seasons and doesn't yet have a sack, but he has the appreciation of those around him.

"I'm very proud of him," Bucs linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul said. "He was telling us they were going to throw it to the back end. He did a great job, came up big with it when we needed a turnover."

There's no telling how much longer McLendon has, but that's not the point. He's not here to set records or fatten up his stats or see his name in lights. Steve McLendon is just a football player. He's made sure of that.

"It doesn't matter how you get here, it just matters what you do when you get the opportunity," McLendon said. "I never worried about the next day, I just stayed in the moment. And I prepared. I worked my tail off. All I did was continue to work, that's all I know how to do.

"I don't get caught up in anything that can take away my focus. The code I live by is called the Focus Driven Life code. I stay focused, I stay driven and I understand I only have one life and I can accomplish anything I put my mind to and that's exactly what I've been doing my whole career. I don't care how I came here. I know I'm here now."

John Romano, The Tampa Times, published 23 November 2021